As I was reading Brian Pavlac’s Witch Hunts in the Western World, I learned about klikushi, or “shriekers.” These were Russian “witches” who appear as early as the seventeenth century and who are characterized by screaming, “wailing, barking, and writhing during worship services” (184). In that day this was taken to be a sign of witchcraft and women were arrested and tried for it. Fast forward a century or two. In the wilds of Kentucky what is generally called the Second Great Awakening was taking place. Manifestations of the Holy Spirit were, well, wailing, barking, and writhing, significantly, during worship services. These “signs” triggered the beginning of the Pentecostal movement, today one of the largest sects of Christianity. If the exact same behavior had taken place in a different context, the coverts would’ve been convicts.
It is safe to say that psychological explanations may be found for the bizarre activities of people living under a great deal of stress. No supernatural agency is required for glossolalia, spontaneous dancing, or canine vocalizations. If you look closely you’ll probably find any combination of the three in secular contexts during an average stroll through Manhattan. In a haunted country full of tales of the devil, they will be attributed to witchcraft. In a tent-meeting revival under the influence of an emphatic preacher, they will be called signs of the spirit.
Religions like to teach that they are universal, but in fact they are highly contextualized. What I used to tell my students about words applies also to acts—the meaning depends on the context. Whether somebody getting up off their ass is vulgar or merely a statement of fact depends on where the person is sitting. Religions are often rose-colored glasses, casting events in the shades we prefer to see. They are ways of interpreting the world around us and speculating on what, if anything, is outside our apparently closed system. There’s a lesson here to be learned by all. One person’s Monday may be another’s Thursday, but there’s no need for anyone to be crucified if they do it differently. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we only believed that?
It's all a matter of perspective.
Posted in Books, Posts, Religious Origins, Sects
Tagged Brian A. Pavlac, camp meeting, glossolalia, klikushi, Pentecostals, Russia, Second Great Awakening, Witch Hunts in the Western World, witchcraft
Resurrection can become a tired trope, but it is the stuff of both religion and science. Last week it was reported that Russian scientists revivified a plant frozen on the tundra 30,000 years ago. Quite apart from proving that Siberia was already in place 24,000 years before God got around to creating the planet, this amazing feat teaches us lessons about life and its resilience, and also of the possibilities beyond the great pale. The scientists regrew the plant without the benefit of using seeds, making this a kind of virgin birth of the florid kind. Using plant versions of stem cells (the kind of science forbidden in the USA: “won’t somebody think of the seedlings!”), the dead plant was rejuvenated and is alive and healthy in a world vastly different than the mammoth-infested, frosty plains of northern Russia where it first saw daylight. Still, that environment was less hostile to science than the Religious Right. This resurrection shows that we don’t need miracles to bring inert matter back from the dead. No doubt there are covert Creationists trying to sneak into Russia with travel-sized bottles of Roundup in their carry-on bags.
Science has brought us to incredible places by its continued, self-critical process. Religion, preferring no critique, has given us characters like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Rick Santorum. And a really big book. Looking at the religious scene today it is difficult to believe that religions began as exercises in optimism—the world could be better if only we’d progress. Regress now characterizes the religion in the public eye—men (occasionally women) claiming that things were better when we were tilting with mammoths than they are now with people advocating equality for people of other genders, races, and sexual orientations. Science represents our progress, and the vocal theocrats claim we should be going backward. Back to when men were measured by the size of their spears.
Back when I was a teenager I discovered the book Hope for the Flowers, by Trina Paulus. Not really a graphic novel, and not really a children’s book, it tells the story of two caterpillars with the courage to reject the constant, heartless climbing so often required by the world. In the end, of course, they become butterflies. The story has a religious subtext, naturally, but it was for a religion that believed butterflies should be valued rather than smashed between the pages of a heavy Bible. Butterflies bring the pollen that allows flowers to thrive. We live in a world where butterflies have become soft and defenseless while religion is aggressive and offensive. Science has shown us the way to bring flowers back from the grave, but old-time religion is waiting in the shadows with its rusty scythe.
Posted in Animals, Books, Creationism, Current Events, Posts, Religious Violence, Science
Tagged Creationism, Glenn Beck, Hope for the Flowers, Religious Right, Rick Santorum, Rush Limbaugh, Russia, science and religion, stem-cells, Trina Paulus
With the same page of the newspaper lamenting flooding in Iowa and drought in Florida, it seems that nature has turned against us in an almost biblical way. A more biblical plague than locusts would be hard to conceive, however, so when my wife pointed me to a current video of a locust invasion in Russia, I took notice. In the United States we seldom consider locusts since they have largely ceased to be a problem with the extinction of the Rocky Mountain locust for unknown reasons, last century. One of the more interesting books I’ve read over the last few years was Jeffrey Alan Lockwood’s Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier. Because the locust is not an American problem, biblical literalists like to transform biblical locusts into something else. The transformation is not necessary. We’ve eliminated the large predators from our planet, and the small ones often go unnoticed.
Each year as I lecture on the book of Joel, I spend a little time with locusts. The Asian varieties of locusts tend to reproduce rapidly and prolifically in the desert. Quickly exhausting the sparse food supply, they take to the air and fly for, literally, greener pastures. They can fly for three days without stopping which means they are suddenly there and eating everything. They look like divine judgment. Each locust eats its own body weight in green matter daily, and when a swarm can contain over 100 billion locusts, that can add up to 50,000 tons of food a day. Like poorly mannered house guests, locusts stay until all the food is gone, then leave. They are fully capable of devastating entire nations.
An actual biblical locust, vintage 1915.
Hal Lindsey famously converted Joel’s locusts into military helicopters, claiming that they presaged the end times. Decades later we are still here and so are, apparently, the locusts. They are part of evolution’s great machinery. The biblical view that we are the purpose behind that machinery has caused endless problems for the ecosystem. Locusts are a problem because they consume the food that we would otherwise eat or waste. In the struggle for survival, as Joel attests, it is not always the biggest that win.
Posted in Animals, Bible, Books, Current Events, Evolution, Natural Disasters, Posts
Tagged Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance, Evolution, Hal Lindsey, Jeffrey Lockwood, Joel, locusts, Rocky Mountain locust, Russia